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Pooley Shouldham Henry (1801 - 1881):
Clergyman; university administrator

The Reverend Pooley Shouldham Henry was the first President of Queen’s College, Belfast, one of the three constituent colleges of the new Queen’s University in Ireland, which was founded in 1845 according to the Irish Colleges Act of that year (lectures commenced in November 1849); the Irish Universities Act of 1908 transformed the Belfast College into the present-day Queen’s University of Belfast.

Henry was born in Randalstown, County Antrim, and educated at the Belfast Academical Institution (later the Royal Belfast Academical Institution) where he later taught. It may have been the liberal ethos of that institution which shaped his own views; he was appointed minister of First Armagh Presbyterian Church in 1826 but in 1837 some forty families withdrew from his congregation in opposition to his support for a Liberal parliamentary candidate. While in his post, which he held until 1846 he was awarded a doctorate in Divinity from the University of Glasgow (1841), and acted as a government agent for the regium donum (a state fund established by King William III which awarded grants of money to Presbyterian clergy). He was also a Commissioner of National Education (appointed in 1831) and of Charitable Bequests (from 1844-1862). 

When in 1845 the government of Robert Peel was deliberating on the feasible candidates for President of Queen’s College, Belfast their choice fell to one between two Presbyterian ministers, Henry; and Henry Cooke, who was rather Henry’s opposite. (A clerical appointment was felt to be desirable as one of the other two Queen’s Colleges, that in Galway, was to have a Catholic cleric as President.) Henry, whose activities brought him into contact and co-operation with all denominations was in particular much esteemed by many Catholic bishops and clergy, who regarded him as complaisant in the most positive sense. Henry’s outlook on education and religious denomination was to favour interdenominational mixing, not dissimilar in philosophy to what is in modern Northern Ireland called “integrated” education. Cooke was a man of forceful personality and certainly of conservative doctrinal and ecclesial views, not to mention a contemporary view of him as violent, headstrong, lacking in self-control, and hardly likely to employ conciliatory means of administration (specifically, there was apprehension with regard to how he would, or otherwise, co-operate with a Catholic Vice-President). Although Prime Minister Peel initially favoured Cooke over Henry, he came to regard a Cooke appointment as presenting too much difficulty in relation to attracting Catholic students and staff, especially a Vice-President due to his theologically and politically controversial baggage. On the other hand, more radical opinion in largely Protestant Belfast was against any clerical appointment, instead favouring a mathematician, James Thomson, a professor first at the Belfast Academical Institution and latterly the University of Glasgow (and father of the future Lord Kelvin); Thomson was offered the post of Vice-President but declined it for financial reasons (the post would be filled by Thomas Andrews, a consulting physician, Chemistry professor and a distinguished scientist with an international reputation). Hence, on November 29, 1845, Henry was offered and accepted the post of President. Queen’s College formally came into existence the following day by charters of incorporation. The first matriculation exams were held in October 1849 and lectures commenced in November of the same year. 

On 20 December 1849, the formal opening of Queen’s College took place in the (still unheated!) Great Hall. In attendance were the Mayor (Sir William Johnson) and Council of Belfast, the Harbour Commissioners, the Chamber of Commerce, the managers and visitors of the Belfast Academical Institution, representatives of the Protestant churches, the Council of the Natural History and Philosophical Society, the committee of the Botanical Society, the medical staff of the Belfast General Hospital, and many other distinguished guests. There was a royal salute from the Belfast harbour batteries, following which Henry delivered a long address in which he laid out the aims of the Queen’s College, especially in the context of a half-century of unprecedented progress in science, industry, economics, journalism and other areas of national life. He declared that such developments required a well-educated population, and especially regarding Ireland, higher education opened far more widely; Dublin University was an admirable seat of learning but limited itself mainly to the established (Anglican) church and the professional classes. Education, he added, had become a science (this in an age when “science” was very much in the ascendant as a concept), and insofar as some sections of society had not been able easily to avail of the best education, the needs of society would be better served by the application of this science as broadly as possible. He specified Queen’s College Belfast as opening at a time of expansion of Belfast and expressed himself optimistic as to the College’s future. This being 1849, the Great Famine was still causing its calamitous destruction, yet Henry addressed this, arguing that it was this very calamity which served as an incentive for the population of Ireland to maximise its latent talent by instituting “a broad and comprehensive scheme of education”. He emphasised the broad nature of the Queen’s syllabus that it ran to an eight-month academic year as opposed to the traditional six months, and that after one year’s study the student could specialise according to subject. 

Almost at once, the College faced problems of buildings and accommodation, not least with regard to medical students. Previously, medicine in Ulster was taught only at the Belfast Academical Institution, which in those days had not yet evolved into school for secondary-level students alone and which had the first medical school in the province. This school however had been declining through the 1840s, in part through the opposition on religious grounds of the new General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, one of its most notable propagandists being none other than Henry Cooke. This opposition involving the collapse of the Arts Faculty, and eventually the removal of government funding, was the tolling of the bell for the Belfast Academical Institution’s medical school. The Academical Institution however agreed to the use by Queen’s College of its dissecting rooms, but lectures had to given in the College, a mile away and in the era before buses, bicycles or students who could keep horses. Henry pressed the government throughout the 1850s for the funds required for new medical school premises, backed by the opinion of the Senate of the Queen’s University in Ireland. It took Henry a decade to secure from government some of the requested funding - £1600 instead of the sought £3000, though he was able in convince the sympathetic Chief Secretary, Sir Robert Peel (son of the former Prime Minister), to add £700 to this, which in the end proved sufficient for the completion of adequate accommodation for the medical faculty, which freed some university premises to be allocated to the science faculty which greatly needed it. 

Henry was not noted for his scholarship, but perhaps more importantly, was so for his administrative abilities, and he inspired confidence widely within the College. He was generally regarded as a conscientious, diplomatic leader, a conciliator rather than a confrontationalist, and in the province outside the College, keen on promoting, to use modern parlance, good community relations. A memorial bust by Samuel Ferres Lynn was placed in his honour in the College in 1869, a decade before his retirement on 10 October 1879; the University awarded him the degree of DLit (at that time, this degree was awarded honoris causa only). He died two years later, on November 8; his funeral drew a considerable attendance. His memorial portrait bust is still on display, located in the Great Hall of the University.

Born: 1801
Died: 1881
Richard Froggatt

Professor Sir Peter Froggatt


TW Moody & JC Beckett: Queen’s Belfast 1845-1849: The Story of a University (London, 1959); A McCreary & BM Walker: Degrees of Excellence (Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies, 1995); Dictionary of Irish Biography; A Macaulay: William Crolly, Archbishop of Armagh 1835-1849 (Dublin, 1994)